China is still waiting for inflation to peak

August 31, 2011

By George Chen
The opinions expressed are the author’s own.

How time flies. It’s already the end of August and speculations naturally arise about what China’s inflation reading will be for this month.

The most optimistic view these days is that the August Consumer Price Index (CPI) could decline to below 6 percent. The most pessimistic view I’ve heard is that growth has slowed down in August, but probably only to 6.2 percent or 6.3 percent.

But, why should we care about the August CPI so much? One month cannot tell the whole story.

The reason we care so much is because if the August CPI growth slows down (we will see the official release of August economic data in the coming weeks), it’s good news for the central bank as well as for the ordinary people in China who have been fighting with fast inflation for more than three years already. But, it’s not good enough.

Yesterday, amid market talks about August CPI, I heard something interesting from Mengniu, China’s top dairy product maker: “We are confident we can at least maintain (first-half) margin levels in the second half,” Mengniu Chief Financial Officer Wu Jingshui told reporters after the company’s first-half earnings release. He added the company might raise product prices and adjust its product mix to offset an estimated 3 to 5 percent rise in raw milk costs in 2011.

I shared the news on my Twitter-like Sina Weibo micro-blogging service. What was the response from my audience? Frustrated would be the accurate adjective to describe it. Mengniu is the industry leader and if Mengniu leads the next and latest round of product price hikes, you can imagine how rivals will react. Or might they have already coordinated a move on the prices?

Mengniu is not alone as price increases are not just happening in the dairy product business.

Chinese liquor maker Wuliangye also announced this week it will raise prices for its alcohol by 20-30 percent starting September 10 and industry analysts expect Wuliangye’s local rivals will follow the path to maintain their profit margins, too.

So will CPI rebound (if it does decline in August, thanks to the recent fall of pork prices as some economists said) by the end of 2011?

More investors are becoming increasingly convinced these days that in a choice between GDP or CPI, Beijing should fight to maintain GDP not CPI. That is to say Beijing may tolerate further inflation, although at a slower pace month on month, but it can’t afford to see economic growth fall sharply to 7 or 8 percent, as estimated by some economists.

As you can see from the decisions made by Mengniu and Wuliangye, Chinese enterprises certainly don’t want to bear increasing costs that will hurt their profit margins. So, at the end of the day, the victims of China’s rising CPI are the Chinese consumers.

George Chen is a Reuters editor and columnist based in Hong Kong.

Photo: Reuters file picture

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Strangely, the essay doesn’t mention that the Chinese government just changed its tax laws this week. As we all know, inflation runs about 18 months behind any indicator. Since the central government has raised the first credit, so that 60 million more of the poorest income earners in the country no longer need to pay any taxes, it is fairly obvious that any inflation will be canceled out by their increased disposable income. Only the writer could explain why he didn’t mention that salient reality in his opinion column.

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